Dissent and democracy

Guilt by association: The lonely battle of SAR Geelani

As the room for dissent narrows, the culture of determining guilt by association is spreading.

Guilt by association is the attribution of guilt without proof to individuals because the people they associate with are presumed to be guilty. In the current climate, if that is what is happening to students, activists, journalists and some ordinary people, it would certainly apply to a man who has been on death row. It is more likely to happen to individuals with Muslim names.

On February 10, the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners organised a meeting at the Press Club of India in Delhi that reportedly ended with full-throated slogans in support of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru ­– who was executed in 2013 – and azaadi for Kashmir. The meeting took place in the first floor auditorium of the Press Club, and people gathered on the ground floor for a memorial service for a veteran journalist who had recently passed away heard the slogans.

The previous day, Hindi channel Zee News had broadcast a video of a gathering at Jawaharlal Nehru University in which students were seen to be shouting for azaadi for Kashmir. The video has been shown to be doctored with the Delhi government considering legal action against TV channels that aired the doctored footage. A Zee News producer, who quit in protest, has also said that the channel altered the soundtrack of that particular video to make it look like the students were shouting anti-national slogans. On February 11, Zee News would run another story saying anti-national slogans were raised in the Press Club of India.

On February 12, the station house officer of Parliament Street police station took notice of the Press Club of India event after Zee News ran a report on it, and filed a First Information Report. The FIR said that inspector Ashok Kumar noted the Zee News report about a meeting in which people raised anti-India slogans. It names SAR Geelani, professor of Arabic in Delhi University’s Zakir Hussain College, and unnamed persons as organisers of the event. Geelani is the vice-president of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, which organised the meeting.

The Delhi police picked up Geelani on the night of February 15 and formally arrested him early the next day. He is currently in Tihar jail facing charges of sedition, conspiracy and unlawful assembly. As his first bail application was rejected, a second application is likely to be moved in the next few days.

Back story

Geelani is not the sort of figure who would generate public sympathy. He was arrested in the 2001 Parliament attack case. The Delhi police special cell had then described him as a “mastermind”. Arrested in December 2001, Geelani spent 18 months in jail, was tortured and sentenced to death by a fast-track court. He was released by the Delhi high court that found no evidence to connect him to the Parliament attack. The Supreme Court upheld his acquittal.

At that time Geelani’s lawyer, Nandita Haksar, fought a remarkable battle during which she also put together an all India defence committee for him.

Around the time he was acquitted of all charges by the highest court, Geelani was shot five times outside Haksar’s residence. He survived. But the Delhi Police’s special cell, so quick to arrest him, never found his would be assassin.

Since that case touched the murky world of intelligence agencies, police, Kashmir and cross-border terrorism, many narratives could be spun. But we shall never know who wanted to kill Geelani after the courts let him off.

No support now

The current charges are, therefore, nothing compared to what Geelani has been through before. But the difference is that at that time many lawyers, activists, writers and citizens rallied to ask questions about the kind of cases that they believed were being fabricated against innocent people after the attack on the Indian Parliament.

This time, Geelani has largely been left to fight his own battle. Within his own circle in Delhi, he is to some extent being projected as someone who got others into trouble. One could argue that this has happened because he cannot be projected as a sympathetic figure, as students can be.

While JNU students and teachers are contesting charges of being anti-national, the Press Club of India has already cancelled the membership of Ali Javed, another Delhi University professor, who booked the club’s auditorium for Geelani. An Urdu writer, Ali Javed has been the general secretary of the Progressive Writers’ Association and is known to be a regular at the club.

Unlike at JNU, there is no video recording of the press club meeting – at least in the public domain – as yet. While opposing Geelani’s bail, the public prosecutor argued that he put up a poster glorifying Afzal Guru. After being acquitted in the Parliament attack case, Geelani had campaigned vigorously against the death sentence given to Guru. So it is quite likely that he did put up a poster.

Ali Javed, meanwhile, has sought to distance himself from Geelani saying he was misled and betrayed by someone to whom he has been sympathetic. He said that what was supposed to be a discussion on Kashmir on February 9 turned into a memorial meeting for Afzal Guru. He also said that the Kashmiri youth who came with Geelani raised azadi slogans.

Ali Javed, who is not a Kashmiri Muslim, has repeatedly been questioned by the police. His version of events is likely to be in the chargesheet when it is filed. The police is presumably seeking to make its case through witnesses. If the matter goes to trial, it is also possible that people present at the press club would be asked to be witness against Geelani.

The Kashmiri hand

But whether the state and system (including the police) would want to vigorously pursue the case will also depend on political events in Kashmir. No doubt a section of the police have an axe to grind with Geelani. But if the Bharatiya Janata Party does form a government with the Peoples Democratic Party in the state, which is currently under Governor’s rule, would they want to vigorously pursue a case that, in essence, questions the right of Kashmiris to protest outside the Valley?

When amplified on television, the slogans appear unpalatable and repulsive to many ordinary citizens. But anyone familiar with Kashmir would know that these are routine slogans in the cycle of protest in the state that has seen decades of conflict.

Yet, the raising of controversial slogans on two simultaneous days in Delhi has raised questions. On the one hand it has been suggested that both JNU and Press Club of India were false flag operations designed to portray institutions and individuals as anti-national.

On the other hand, Kashmiris say that the manner of Afzal Guru’s hanging is indeed an issue for them. In fact, the BJP’s own ally, the Peoples Democratic Party, maintains that Afzal Guru’s execution was “a travesty of justice” and has consistently demanded that his mortal remains be returned to the Valley. There are Kashmiri students in Delhi who routinely raise azaadi slogans at public events. It’s just that they have never come under this sort of scrutiny.

The third point of view, of course, is that anti-nationals are embedded in the system and must be ferreted out.

What is clear is that room for dissent is narrowing. Instead, the culture of determining guilt by association is spreading. So while Ali Javed has distanced himself from Geelani, the Press Club of India has distanced itself from Ali Javed. When Javed returned to the club as a guest of a member, a few other members raised their voices saying they did not want the Press Club to become a den for anti-nationals. Geelani, meanwhile, has reportedly chosen to fight his case in a low-key manner.

Saba Naqvi is an independent journalist.

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